Tun Min Nyunt, Tutor, Department of Vipassanâ, Faculty of Paíipati, ITBM University, Myanmar
At ITBMU, there are four major areas of study indicated by four major faculties, namely, Pariyatti (scriptural studies), Paíipatti (meditation practices), Language and Translation studies, Religion and Missionary studies. I would like to draw your attention to the faculty of Paíipatti under which the study of meditation is being carried out. One of the main objectives of this university is to generate competent Buddhist missionaries who are well-versed in the Piíaka literature and meditational practices. To achieve this objective, the Faculty of Paíipatti was designed to offer a particular context where the study of the Dhamma is made possible both in letter and spirit.
In the Faculty of Paíipatti, there are three departments namely, Dhammânuloma, Samatha, and Vipassanâ. This three-pronged approach to the study of meditation reflects the fact that the unfolding of liberating insight is naturally based on a life of moral discipline and mental purification. Of the three departments in the Paíipatti Faculty, Dhammânuloma is studied only in the Diploma class, while Samatha and Vipassanâ are studied in different levels of depth in all three academic years for the undergraduate.
On the subject of Dhammânuloma, students are taught the basic principles of Buddhist doctrines, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, observing Buddhist ethics, and devotional practices. Understanding of Dhammânuloma will enable one to lead a life in conformity with the Dhamma. The most important purpose this course serves is to give students a foundation upon which the study and practice of meditation can be undertaken. The emphasis given here is to distinguish the Buddhist Meditation from other forms of meditation and to familiarize the students with the prerequisites for meditations.
Secondly, the study of Samatha meditation focuses on the subject of developing mental purification through 40 different ways prescribed by the Buddha in the Pâli Canon. Thirdly, the study of Vipassanâ meditation delves into the development of insight knowledge through ways and means outlined in the Nikâyas and commentary tradition. Two 45 minute class-periods per week are allotted for theoretical studies of each of the above subjects.
How meditation is taught
A complimentary program of practical Vipassanâ meditation was integrated into the syllabus. In fact, one of the innovative objectives of the ITBMU is to offer Theravâda method of Vipassanâ meditation to the students. Out of 23 periods on a weekly basis, a session of two hours (i.e., 2 consecutive periods) is specially allotted for practicing meditation, at the beginning of which, practical instructions are given. Occasionally, distinguished meditation teachers are invited to conduct a special session of meditation. Although two hours are set aside for sitting or walking meditation, the students practice should by no means be confined to the meditation hall. Students are encouraged to explore how these teachings can be applied in all aspects of their daily lives. Special meditation courses are made available to students in some famous retreats during the vacations which come after each of the two semesters.
Every effort is made to provide the students with the necessary information to reach the conclusion that the knowledge gained through the study of the Dhamma is to be integrated into their lives. Students are encouraged to lead a life of moral discipline, to purify the mind by cultivating a sense of awareness in the present moment in daily activities. While the importance of applying the teachings is emphasized, practicing meditation is by no means imposed upon the students.
The logic behind the above curriculum is to provide the context in which the study of Buddhism can be pursued - not only as an academic discipline or a subject for intellectual speculation, but the acquisition of a sound and solid working knowledge of the Dhamma. It is also designed to offer a systematic study of the Dhamma which will serve as a proper foundation for both personal meditation practice and for transferring the Dhamma. Yet, being in its early years of development, it is still felt that the system thus far adopted is not regarded as satisfactory. An in-depth observation is still going on to improve the current syllabus.
Weakness in Structure
Although emphasis is placed on the theoretical aspect to remain acceptable by western standards of education, the practical aspect is also taught, yet it still has to assume its due importance. To ensure straight and steady progress, the study of the meditation should be sustained by its two complementary aspects __theory and practice __, like a bird in flight borne by its two wings. Yet, the approach to understanding the Dhamma in this university remains mostly academic to fit the standard of the western system of education.
Lack of Support Environment
At ITBMU, the atmosphere is too academic for the actual practice of meditation to prosper. The practice-to-theory ratio 2:21 indicates that the practical meditation hardly fits into the mold of modern academia. Yet, it is hoped that as the theoretical and practical aspects of teachings naturally sink in, the students’ understanding matures and he recognizes the necessity of a synthesis of theory and practice. This is up to the individual and will take varying lengths of time.
Another problem is the fact that having to study 8 to 9 subjects leaves most students with little time to practice meditation. At ITBMU, most students find it difficult to devote themselves to intensive meditation. Since students tend to follow the general trend, if a student finds friends and teachers were taking seriously to the practice of meditation, it is likely he would follow suit. And it is also hoped, in this way, one can strike balance between the two sides of the study of meditation.
The teachers’ commitment to the practice of meditation is also vital to the success in teaching meditation as an academic subject. Since the Dhamma is better taught by example than precepts, teachers who are committed to practice are more likely to succeed in imparting the knowledge of the Dhamma.
One of the challenges facing learning meditation as an academic subject is assessment of the progress in meditation. This is simply because the full breadth of meditation extends beyond the scope of academic study. Even monastic Universities here in Myanmar have not had much discussion on the academic assessment of meditation practice.
In Myanmar, the two State Pariyatti Sâsana Universities have integrated the training course of meditation into their B.A and M.A programs. A 10 days intensive meditation retreat is compulsory to obtain a B.A degree, and 10 for M.A first year and 45 for M.A second year. Upon their return to the university, each student is required to bring a report endorsed by the meditation center at which they undertook their retreat. This is just to find out whether the student has completed the prescribed duration as required by the curriculum. No mention is made regarding the student’s progress during the course of practice.
In some Vipassanâ meditation centers following the Mahasi tradition, meditators are required to check up with the teacher on a daily basis for guidance and assessment. Depending on individual experience the teacher gives specific instructions in the light of insight knowledges spelt out in the commentary tradition (or of their own personal experience!?). In other centers, for example Mogok tradition, this style of mandatory daily interviews is not adopted. However, it is always available for each meditator to request personal instruction and assessment from the teacher to make sure he is on the right course.
Here at ITBMU, it is not mandatory to participate in meditation sessions and interviews. The meditation teachers keep an open door for students to come and pose their questions. When it comes to gauging progress in practice, self assessment is encouraged. In the same way, students are encouraged to put what they have learned in class into practice at their own discretion.
Another approach in which the student’s progress is assessed is through academic examinations, which are useful to assess progress not only in terms of academic aptitude but also in the light of their actual experience. The clarity and context of the student’s answers to the questions reflect the ‘experiential grasp’ of what they have already studied. It would be more holistic to implement a system of teacher evaluation of the students’ progress on an individual basis. The interviews would of course be confidential and would serve the purpose.
One of the benefits of learning meditation first in the classroom is that when it is taken into practice, the students can relate their experience to what they have already learned in the study. What one has studied in classroom can serve as warning signs and guideposts along the path of practice. Also, the students will be better able to assess what stage they are at in practice, but the drawback is they, knowing what is yet to come, they may begin to long for it.
Students whose study is backed up by regular practice of meditation are found to be gaining advantage in their academic studies. This happens especially in the study of Vipassanâ which is a subject of insights resulted from personal experience. At ITBMU, some teachers are found to be inclined to give more credit to students who can exhibit a personal touch in their answers.
The unique aspect of the university as mentioned above is to approach meditation academically. In ITBMU, it is found that students’ interest in Buddhist meditation remains mostly academic. Probably for the small amount of time allotted to practice meditation on a weekly basis, the number of serious meditators among students is low. This is probably because Myanmar is a country literally abounds in mediation centers. There have been a few numbers of students who, being practically inclined, left for meditation centers to devote themselves to fuller engagement in the practice.
For all intent and purposes, if the subject of meditation is to survive in the mainstream of modern day education it will naturally assume the role of an academic subject rather than a daily practice. But in so doing, the approach becomes incomplete. The source of this problem lies in the structure of society and the modern intellectual mind, to meet the demands of which, emphasis has shifted away from the practical side of meditation. It is highly debatable whether this shortcoming is compensated by the important role it plays in transferring the Dhamma.